When Woonhye Park comes to Calgary in 2012, she realizes that the office shoes she wore in South Korea will be of no use in her unexpected cooking job. Instead, she buys lightweight sneakers at a second-hand shop. Those shoes know Woonhye’s sweat, tears, and toil at a job she is ill-suited for. Will she ever wear her office shoes again?
In South Korea, I had such a normal life without any difficulty. I grew up in Seoul and studied computer science at Inha University. When I graduated in 1985, the Information Technology revolution was beginning. I worked hard and was well paid. After 25 years in three different companies, I took early retirement. My plan was to start a new career as a freelance instructor of programming language.
My husband had a different plan. He wanted to open a business in Calgary that supported people seeking employment in Canada. I didn’t want to live away from my family, friends, and stable environment. While I was hesitating, my husband found an immigration agency in Calgary as a business partner. The agency offered me a work permit. So, I reluctantly agreed with the new plan.
I packed my office shoes since I would be working in the immigration agency. My husband, my 7-year-old daughter and I arrived in Calgary on January 26, 2012.
The business did not go well. The partnership with the immigration agency broke up. And I couldn’t work there anymore. It was a terrible situation. But I didn’t think about going back to my country. I had come around to the idea of starting a new life. In for a penny, in for a pound. I searched for an employer who could give me a work permit to stay in Canada legally.
After a five-month struggle, I got work as a cook in a Korean restaurant. The office shoes I had brought were no longer of use. I had to stand long hours and move quickly. At first, I wore my name-brand sneakers at work. They got dirty and worn easily. When I needed a new pair, my co-worker introduced me to WINS (the Women In Need Society). And I bought black slip-on lightweight sneakers. Initially, I was reluctant to buy second-hand shoes. In Korea, people believe that misfortune can be contagious if they wear an unhappy person’s clothes or shoes. So, Koreans rarely wear the belongings of people they don’t know. But I realized that there were many thrift shops in Calgary, and it was common to donate and buy used goods. The second-hand shoes were even more comfortable than new. Moreover, I needed to save money. After that, I often stopped by a second-hand shop when my sneakers wore out.
I felt sad and anxious when I started my new work experience in the kitchen. I suspected the future was going to be a bumpy road. And it was. In Korea, I usually ate out, or my mom and sister cooked for me. I was not a good cook. I was always in a hurry. So, I often cut and burned myself. I worked seven days a week for a low wage. It was a really hard time, but I tried not to look back, just forward.
When I was ready to apply for permanent residency, I signed a contract with an immigration agency and paid all costs. The very next day, the government discontinued that skilled worker program. I changed my plan again and applied to the Alberta Immigrant Nominee Program. Finally, I got my permanent resident visa on January 17, 2016.
I quit the restaurant, but I still wear the same kind of shoes, sometimes new, sometimes used. Those shoes know my sweat, tears, and toil. Buying used things never bothered me again. Now I even enjoy garage sales.
And I have a new plan. I will take a program called “Making Changes – Women in Technology.” It is another step forward in my Canadian journey.
WOONHYE PARK was born in Seoul, South Korea, where she studied computer science and became a software engineer. In 2012, she moved with her husband and daughter to Calgary and worked in a Korean restaurant for four years. She is now employed at a Safeway supermarket while she lays the groundwork to pursue a career in information technology. She recently earned a certification for Full Stack Web Development. As a book lover, she once dreamed of becoming a librarian and plans to volunteer at a library.